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Volunteering: "Google's mission is a social mission"

At the European Conference for Corporate Volunteering – hosted by Credit Suisse and IAVE from 31 August 31 – 2 September  2015 key thought leaders engage in discussions on how to develop strong, high impact volunteer efforts. Patrick Warnking, Country Director of Google Switzerland, is one of them.

Alice Bordoloi: What is the culture of volunteering at Google?

Patrick Warnking: To some extent it's a given. Google's mission is inherently a social mission as we aim to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useable. This means that we bring all of our assets to support all sectors: our products, our financial assets and our skills. We have a dedicated team, called GooglersGive, working globally with a large network of 'Ambassadors' across our offices. The type of people that we hire support the values of the organisation and, as a result, it's a given for many of our employees that they will seek and support volunteering opportunities.

How can companies best build effective partnerships with NGOs and how can companies assure the impact of their volunteer efforts?

The relationships that we build with NGOs are focused on being mutually beneficial. The GooglersGive team helps our employees understand what this means in developing any idea with an NGO and, of course, we ensure we that we do projects 'with' them rather than 'to' them. By taking this approach we're listening to the experts in their field and bringing relevant skills to achieve the desired impact.

How important is technology and the leverage thereof to increase the participation and reach of corporate volunteering efforts? Can you tell us about a best-practice example at Google?

We operate our own systems which enable our employees to create projects, volunteer, record their time and type of volunteering and for the company to disburse 'Donations for Doers' (a financial contribution to the NGO for each hour of volunteering). These systems are accessible to everyone globally, provide for effective reporting and they allow us to break data down to give meaningful insights. It won't come as a surprise to learn that we are highly data-driven in our goal-setting and decision making and this allows us to identify where we can achieve the greatest impact and where we might need to invest more time.

What are the opportunities and challenges presented by social media and online volunteering in a digital age?

In the context of volunteering in Google social media is a way of sharing our stories internally and, to some small extent, externally. More relevant to us is, perhaps, the growth of the ability for us to leverage our amazing Engineering skills via remote volunteering. We've begun to test ideas with organisations like Catchafire and SocialCoding4Good which facilitate us to bring hard-to-find technical skills to defined projects.  At the end of the day, most people still volunteer because they are asked by someone to join them. Many online volunteering opportunities are designed for people to find the opportunities independently. We've found that it is a rare person who will jump into a volunteer role without someone alongside them that they know and trust.

What social and economic gaps can corporate volunteering fill? In this context, how important is Skills-based volunteering?

I'd suggest that we shouldn't be seeking to fill these kinds of gaps through corporate volunteering. The role that volunteering plays in a society and an economy varies hugely market-to-market. These differences come from the historical, cultural, political and economic context and, in turn, the types of volunteering that are relevant must be considered. Many of our employees love to use their skills outside of their day job but, equally, many like to apply themselves in other ways and many have roles within the company that can make a huge societal impact such as helping small businesses with digital strategies or developing products to help those in the developing world get online in a cost effective manner.

What added value does corporate volunteering bring for NGOs, the public sector and corporations & their employees?

Added value comes from understanding the overall aims of any relationship, the role of each party and the desired outcomes of the stakeholders. Each sector can learn a lot about each other through this process.  Businesses bring their own methodology to problem solving and sometimes provide a fresh perspective for innovation that can be helpful to NGOs and the public sector.  In turn, businesses learn about the challenges facing these organizations which can lead to greater understanding of the complexity of society's biggest issues. 

What relation do you see between the financial performance of a company and its corporate social activities?

You might notice that Google makes very little noise publicly about much of its activity in this this area (compared to other corporations). This is underpinned by a belief that this is just what a modern vibrant company does. Financial performance is linked to the outputs of the organisation and, of course, for Google this is the products built and supported by our teams globally. We want those teams to be socially aware, conscious of their place in the world and to be contributors; our community and NGO engagement is an important aspect of that culture that feeds our performance.

How can private companies best cooperate in their corporate volunteering programs?

There is increasing scope for this and, indeed, we are currently looking into some partnerships with other businesses in Switzerland. Cooperation might range from knowledge sharing  through to collaborating on specific projects where a range of skills is required. There are, of course, competitive considerations where proprietary knowledge is needed but with openness and cooperation we should consider that a diverse range of minds often come up with the best solutions!

Where do you see corporate volunteering in the future?

Some of the most interesting developments in corporate volunteering will come where organisations are engaging in much longer term goals. As an example we have a major focus on Googlers volunteering their time and skills in supporting Computer Science Education across all levels pre-University. Obviously this doesn't deliver any business outcomes in the short term, and it doesn't feed directly into our employment pipeline but it is clearly of value to society to ensure that our children are equipped with the skills and knowledge to succeed in a fast-changing environment; a long term view far removed from the quarterly focus of traditional business.